Top ten ways to get some rest: results from a world-wide study

Reading is the number one most restful activity, according to writer and broadcaster Claudia Hammond. Her book, The Art of Rest, reveals the activities - other than sleep - that can most help you relax - even if it’s something you struggle with.

Pairing science with psychology, Claudia Hammond wrote the book on rest — and why we need more of it.


Episode originally aired May 9, 2021.

Despite spending more time at home, Claudia Hammond says the pandemic has made many of us busier than ever. Her latest book,The Art of Rest: How to Find Respite in the Modern Age, tackles a common challenge: how do we find opportunities for rest in a productivity-obsessed world. 

Hammond, a writer and BBC broadcaster, collaborated on gathering research for "The Rest Test," the largest global survey on rest ever conducted. The responses from 18,000 people across 135 different countries were compiled into a list of activities that people find the most restful.

Here are the top ten most restful: 

10. Meditation or practising mindfulness

9. Watching TV

8. Daydreaming

7. Taking a shower or bath

6. Walking 

5. Doing nothing in particular

4. Listening to music

3. Being alone

2. Being in a natural environment

1. Reading

Hammond talked to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the findings from "The Rest Test," how to not feel guilty about taking time to rest, and how to make it a daily practice. 

Here is part of that conversation. 

You've looked into some of these complicated feelings people can have about rest. And I'm interested in the fact that this wasn't always the case. What's changed over the years, over the decades, perhaps over the centuries in how human beings think about rest?

If you look at time use studies going say back to the 1940s, 1950s, it's not the case that people had loads more spare time then than they do now. And it's not the case that people worked a lot less than they do now. But yet it doesn't feel like that to us. We feel a kind of pressure. And I think it's almost as though being busy has become something of a status symbol. 

And then I think the other thing is that the boundaries between work or not working have become really blurred, because technology has allowed them to do that. And I think with people, so many people working from home during the pandemic, that's only increased. And it's interesting that if you look at research that's been done, since the pandemic has started, shows that people are working longer hours, not shorter hours. So even though people haven't got to do their commute anymore, they're using that time to carry on working, and to start work earlier and end work later. So I think that's partly why we feel unrested. 

Claudia Hammond (Ian Brodie)

If I'm working at an Amazon warehouse, though, or on a delivery truck, my feelings about rest might not be so complicated, you know, I think they would amount to 'for the love of God, please give me some.' Is some of this ultimately about how well-off someone is?

Well, we found in "The Rest Test" that two-thirds of people said that they wanted more rest. And that did seem to be regardless of income. And so it is the case, I think, that a lot of people want more rest. And so you may be working in that Amazon warehouse and you know, being on your feet all the time and tired and wanting some rest. Or people may be doing a very different job, maybe sitting at a desk, but still feel overloaded and still have this desire to have some more rest. And we found that the people who didn't want more rest had higher levels of well-being. 

We had included a personality scale and if we even just took the people who scored high on extraversion, still, those things like socializing and chatting, and drinking socially, didn't come out high.- Claudia Hammond

You and your colleagues asked people about the activities they found the most restful, were you surprised when no fewer than the top five ended up being things you do by yourself?

We didn't expect to see that. And it was so interesting, the things that don't come in the top 10. So things like socializing was at number 13  or chatting was at number 19 or drinking socially was 20, eating was 21. All of these things that people are, in many places missing so much now, are things that didn't come very high. 

We had included a personality scale and if we even just took the people who scored high on extraversion, still, those things like socializing and chatting, and drinking socially, didn't come out high. Which I think is really interesting, and does indicate something about our need to have at least some time away from other people, some time in solitude.

I want to quote you here, Claudia, "if I'm honest, TV is the form of culture I enjoy the most, and is also the main way I relax," and I'm with you on that, TV would be way up near the top of my list, especially during the pandemic. Were you surprised when watching television barely made it into the top 10 ways people relax?

Yes, I was surprised it wasn't a bit higher. But I think now in particular, it is of course, one of the few things that people still can do during lockdowns and so TV [has] become very, very popular. I think TV gets a bit of a bad rap, as you know, it gets associated with couch potatoes, and that people are somehow lazy for watching TV and that it could rot your brain.

There's big Brazilian study suggesting if people watch more than five hours a day of TV, they're more likely to have lower levels of well-being and even depression. But if people are watching a smaller amount than that, then in a way, I think it's what people have always done, which is that we love stories about other people. 

Claudia Hammond suggests “people prescribe themselves 15 minutes of a thing that they find really restful a day.” She says spending time in her garden has been an important daily practice for her mental health. (Submitted by Claudia Hammond)

You looked at daydreaming as a way of getting some rest with the lovely suggestion that "not all minds that wander are lost." What did you learn about daydreaming?

There's plenty of evidence that it improves creativity, which is partly why people will talk about, you know, staring out of the window when they're stuck on something or going for a walk and thinking about something different when they're stuck on a problem and then coming back to it. But also, what's really interesting is how we like daydreaming. Most people like it, but it's, in a way, not restful. And in the 1990s, it was discovered that actually, when we're daydreaming, and when our minds are wandering, our brains are actually more active when we're doing that than when we concentrate on, say, something like a maths task.

What did you learn about the link between being at rest and being alone?

Of course there's a difference between chosen solitude and feeling lonely. There is this sense where you can be on your own, but know you have the friends and the social connections and that you feel understood by other people. And then it can be fine being on your own. If you don't have those connections, then it can feel painful. 

We found that more women put down being on their own, which was interesting and more people under the age of 30 put down being on their own higher than others did. And I think there is a real yearning for people to have some solitude. So what would be interesting to know now is, now that we've been forced to be on our own a bit more, whether people would still put that down as something restful or whether people are missing other people too much.

So the number one activity for a good rest among all the people you canvassed is reading. And you're suggesting that reading is restful in two completely different ways. Tell me about that. 

Well, I think that one thing it allows you to do is to, to escape. So it allows you to escape from your own life and your own words and your own thoughts into someone else's life. But it also allows you to be alone, but with company, because you have the characters in the book who are there. And there has been research showing that novels can help to alleviate loneliness.

There are sometimes opportunities where you are resting really, but you haven't noticed you're resting.- Claudia Hammond

If you're reading specifically to have a good rest, does it matter what you're reading? Because I'm thinking I love a good smart thriller, but I'm going to be on edge the entire time — am I resting?

It is taking you away completely into another world, which is in itself restful. And what matters is whether you enjoy it or not. And there is this thing where people sometimes choose if they're going on holiday, there's an idea of "holiday reads" of being something that's very easy. Whereas I wonder whether a holiday where you actually get more hours to read than normal, is a better time to actually read something really complicated. The thing you've been putting off reading because it's a big weighty tome, and you're slightly intimidated by it. This holiday is the time when you can get really into that, which is much harder when you're reading for five minutes before you fall asleep late at night.

You play with the idea of reframing wasted time as rest time. Tell me about that.

There's a sense that a lot of us don't get enough time to rest. People will say, "well, I can't fit in any time to rest because I'm too busy." But if you look in your life, there are sometimes some wasted moments. And there are sometimes opportunities where you are resting really, but you haven't noticed you're resting. And you might even feel frustrated. 

What I suggest doing, and I do this now, is to reframe that wasted time as rest. To think, "oh, well. Aren't I lucky? I've got a 10-minute rest now." At another time if somebody had said, "you can just spend 10 minutes watching the world go by," we might really like that. And so find those wasted moments, which might be on a train or queuing or just waiting somewhere for something and think, "yeah, I'm going to rest now for 10 minutes, I've got a gift now of a break."

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Written and produced by McKenna Hadley-Burke.